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Old Thursday, October 11, 2012
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Post Eliot's Waste Land

The Waste Land first appeared in October, 1922, in the Criterion, a periodical founded and edited by Eliot. In November of the same year it was published in the Dial, an American publication. At a later date it was published as a book with notes added, and it has also appeared in numerous anthologies.

The Waste Land is an allusive and complex poem. As such, it is subject to a variety of interpretations, and no two critics agree completely on its meaning. It may be interpreted on three levels: the person, the society, and the human race. The personal interpretation seeks to reveal Eliot's feelings and intentions in writing the poem. At the society level, a critic looks for the meaning of the poem in relation to the society for which it was written. Finally, the human level extends the societal level to include all human societies - past, present, and future (Thompson 144).

Since the human level is an extension of the societal level, the basic themes are the same for both. The main theme is "modern life as a waste land." Eliot supports the theme by showing what was wrong with society in the early twentieth century. These shortcomings include lack of faith, lack of communication, fear of both life and death, corruption of the life-water symbol, and corruption of sex.

There are two kinds of people in the modern waste land, according to Eliot. These are seen in the crowd that flows over London Bridge (62-65). He states, "I had not thought death had undone so many." This is a reference to Dante's description of the people in Limbo. They were the dead who were neither bad nor good, just secularized. This is one category of people in the waste land (Williamson 133). The other is given by another reference to Dante: "Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled." This is descriptive of people in the first level of hell, those who were born before Christ. They have no knowledge of salvation and cannot be saved (according to Dante.) The reference shows that there are also people in the twentieth century who have no faith (Brooks 13). Eliot illustrates the lack of faith at several points. In lines 301-302, one of the Thames daughters states, "I can connect / Nothing with nothing." Because she has no faith, there are no connections and no meaning in her life (Wheelwright 97). There are several references in the poem to "hooded hordes walking in a ring." Madame Sosostris sees them, and the protagonist meets them as he journeys to the Perilous Chapel. The hooded hordes are hooded because they cannot see the hooded figure, the "third that always walks beside you," who represents Christ (Brooks 26). They are walking in a ring, with no sense of purpose or direction, because they have no faith (Williamson 149).

Another indication of the people's lack of faith is the story of the merchant. Traditionally, the merchants carried the secrets of the vegetation cult - the mythology which forms the basis of the poem - to all the countries they visited. However, the merchant Eliot describes does not do this. Instead of inviting the protagonist to a meeting that will introduce him to life-giving secrets, the merchant asks him to a weekend of homosexual debauchery that can only bring death (Brooks 21). In addition, Madame Sosostris is prohibited from seeing what the merchant carries on his back. She, likes the others in her world, cannot know about the secrets of life (Wheelwright 97). The world has lost its faith.

The people in the waste land also have problems with communication. This is first illustrated in the Hyacinth girl scene (35-41). She indicates that she is unable to speak, and therefore cannot communicate with the protagonist (Unger, Moments 120). Similarly, the lady of situations says "Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak." She feels the need to communicate but does not know how (Traversi 35). The response to the command "Dayadhvam" (sympathize) also shows that the people cannot communicate. They are all sitting in their prisons, thinking of the keys that will release them, yet never getting out. Their pride and selfishness keep them from understanding each other (Matthiessen 138). Finally, the encounter between the typist and the young man reinforces the problem of selfishness. Neither the typist nor her visitor is interested in the other. They just want to please themselves. Because of this focus on self, there is no communication between them (Brooks 22).

The opening lines of the poem describe the feelings of the protagonist as spring arrives. Instead of being joyful, he is disturbed. The new beginnings around him make him afraid, because he does not want a new beginning in his own life. He is afraid to live life (Brooks 12). However, he is also afraid of death. The statement "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (30) refers to fear of death, or fear of becoming just a handful of dust (Traversi 26). Another example of fear of life is in the planting of the corpse described in lines 69-75. The protagonist asks if the corpse has sprouted. He seems to be afraid of what might happen if it does (Williamson 134). However, the horror of rats' alley (115) illustrates the fear of death again. Although the inhabitants of the waste land do not want to fully live, they are too afraid to die.

A traditional symbol of life is water, since human life is believed to have come from the water through the evolution of fish. Many religions, including the vegetation cults, held water as sacred and life-giving. Unfortunately, the people in the waste land have lost this ancient belief, according to Eliot. They have corrupted the life symbol and made it into something to be feared instead of revered. For example, the Phoenician sailor dies by drowning. Water certainly does not represent life to him! The clairvoyant Madame Sosostris advises the protagonist, "Fear death by water." Since he does not have faith (as illustrated above), water means death to him. He cannot live in it (Williamson 125). He also states "By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept..." (182). Leman means "lust." The protagonist indicates here that the prevalence of unbridled lust has disturbed him. Water has been corrupted - it now represents the death that results from the lack of self control. It no longer stands for life (Williamson 139). Another instance of this is Eliot's quote from an Australian song, "O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter / and on her daughter / They wash their feet in soda water" (199-201). In the legends of the Fisher King a footwashing ceremony preceded the restoration of the king. These lines tell us that ordinary water can no longer be used in footwashing - its symbolism has been lost (Brooks 20).

An important theme is corruption of sex -- Eliot stresses this by giving many examples. The first is found in the description of the lady of situations. A "sylvan scene" is displayed above her mantel. The scene depicts "the change of Philomel," who was raped by King Tereus, husband of her sister Procne. Eliot states in line 102, "And still she cried, and still the world pursues." The change of Philomela took place many centuries ago, yet it is still happening today (Williamson 142). A second illustration of corrupted sex is in the pub scene (140-172). Albert "wants a good time" and he doesn't care who he hurts to get it. He is not concerned about the possibility of his wife dying in childbirth. Her friend, who is speaking, doesn't care either. The feelings of the society are that lust should be satisfied no matter what the consequences may be (Brooks 17-18). This theme is seen once more in the meeting of the typist and the young man (222-256). The typist is "bored and tired." The young man is "flushed and decided." Eliot states, "His vanity requires no response, / and makes a welcome of indifference." He isn't interested in exciting or pleasing her; he is only interested in his own satisfaction. "Love" in modern society is not really love - it is merely the fulfillment of instinctive desires. It is practical, boring, and meaningless (Matthiessen 61).

These three scenes are fairly lengthy, but Eliot also shows the corruption of love in short references. For example, lines 196-198 state "But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring." The first line is a reference to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." The other two lines refers to Day's "Parliament of Bees" -- "A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring / Actaeon to Diana in the spring." The references appear in Eliot's notes. The contrasts of "hunting" with "motors" as well as "Actaeon and Diana" with "Sweeney and Mrs. Porter" illustrate the significant changes in the pursuit of love. Love was once treasured, but it is now reduced to sex for pleasure and not much else. In addition, Eliot contrasts the love of Elizabeth and Leicester (279) with lovers of the present day (represented by the Thames daughters). The love of the past was enduring and real, while the love of the modern world is transitory and phony (Brooks 23).

Eliot is very discouraged about the society he has described as a waste land, but he does offer hope and a means of recovery. In Part V "What the Thunder Said," the three interpretations of DA - Datta (give), Dayadhvam (sympathize) and Damayata (control) - are the keys to new life for the waste land. They are the antithesis of modern problems. If people learn to give, sex will gain new meaning as an expression of emotion and it will no longer be corrupted. If they sympathize with each other, they will be able to communicate their true feelings and listen to those of others. Finally, if they develop self-control, their faith will return and they will no longer fear life or death.

Most critics have confined themselves to the societal/human interpretation of Eliot's work, since Eliot had warned them away from trying to determine his true purpose in writing his poetry. However, one theory has been put forward concerning his personal background and the meaning of the poem.

When Eliot was studying in Paris he had a close friend, Jean Verdenal, who was killed at Gallipolli during World War I. Eliot was never quite sure how he died, but "death by water" is a possible explanation since the battle occurred offshore. Eliot dedicated his first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, to this friend. Information gathered from his first wife and from his personal papers indicates that he loved Jean Verdenal very much. The theory that has been set forth is that he wrote The Waste Land to express and to partially alleviate his grief, as Tennyson did with In Memoriam (Miller 19).

The world may never be certain exactly what Eliot had in mind when he wrote his most famous poem. However, we can determine the meaning of the poem to the "Lost Generation" and to all generations, as expressed in the themes I have described.
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